TOWN 'N COUNTRY — It started, simply enough, with a Christmas tree on the roof.
Back in 1997, Jason Dittman had started as owner-operator of a new Chick-fil-A at 6299 Waters Ave. Jason and his father Richard wanted to deck the halls at the new restaurant that first year, but couldn't decide exactly how to do it.
"We asked ourselves 'what could we do to celebrate Christmas night here?' " the elder Dittman recounts.
The rooftop Christmas tree and a few lawn decorations seemed to fit the bill, as well as draw a stream of bright-eyed (and hungry) admirers. From there, the Christmas display grew larger every year.
Nowadays, customers who drive by the restaurant — starting today — find far more than simple lights. From two blocks away, nighttime motorists can see a hazy aura of green, red and white emanating low into the sky.
As they approach, they see the source of the heavenly radiance: hundreds of thousands of tiny lights hanging from virtually every wall, utility pole, and fence post on the 1-acre property in the Waters Crossing shopping center.
"I'd estimate there are at least 1 million, and possibly 1.5 million, lights," said Richard Dittman, 69.
The younger Dittman chimes in.
"Over the years we've incorporated a lot of technology," Jason Dittman says. "We've gone from standard incandescent light bulbs to using LEDs and computerized lighting sequences."
As technology has evolved, so, too, has the restaurant on Waters Avenue. The original 3,000-square-foot building was replaced in 2014 with a 5,320-square-foot facility that boosted seating from 90 to 160.
"Many people last year were concerned we wouldn't get the new store opened on time to get the lights up," Jason admits.
But they did. Customers and fans kept pace with the rebuild progress — and the addition of that year's Christmas display — through a robust social media campaign that Jason led.
Even though Jason and his dad, along with a few close friends, are still putting the final touches on this year's display — which they began setting up in September — the family is already on the phone arranging new decorative elements for next year's holiday spread.
"We've been talking with a fabricator on something we want to add to next year's display," Jason explains.
While unfurling thousands of strings of Christmas lights could lead to very un-merry headaches for even the most ardent Clark Griswold wannabes, for the Dittmans, it's a labor of love. "I grew up looking forward to my dad putting up Christmas lights on the house every year," Jason, now 44, remembers. "It was a real tradition for our family."
Now they carry on the family legacy at the restaurant as a way of giving back to the community, drawing fans from as far as Brandon and Brooksville.
"My family has made a tradition of taking our children there each year, and now we are taking our grandchildren," says longtime resident of Town 'N Country Melissa Spanola. "They do a super job each year with not only the decorations and [faux] snow, but also with the music, some of which is timed to the lights. Can't wait till the lights are on this year."
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The Dittmans love making people smile, both young and old alike, and Jason says it really reflects what Chick-fil-A stands for.
"It really touches me when we have a bus of seniors stop by, some in wheelchairs, and they will just sit down, enjoy a sandwich, and take in the lights," Richard remarks. "They say the lights remind them of Christmases back when they were young kids."
For the families who show up in droves, there's plenty to see and do at the Town 'N Country Chick-Fil-A beyond taking in the lights and enjoying a chicken sandwich. Just as in years past, a strong lineup of entertainers and choral groups from local schools will perform on select nights, and jolly ol' Saint Nick will also be making appearances at the Chick-Fil-A location.
Contact Joshua McMorrow-Hernandez at firstname.lastname@example.org.